Resource Use

Half of UK households throw recyclable items in general waste, says WRAP

Dry mixed recycling box
WRAP's latest Recycling Tracker suggests, on average, households could recycle 1.6 more items at the kerbside.
As part of Recycle Week (23-29 September), the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has released the results of its 2019 Recycling Tracker, an annual survey of UK households that collects information on recycling attitudes, knowledge and behaviours.

Key findings in the results highlight that over the past year 60 per cent of UK households report extra recycling of one or more items. However, over half of UK residents (51 per cent) dispose of recyclable items in the general waste and just over four in five (82 per cent) try to recycle one or more items at the kerbside that are not actually accepted locally, suggesting there is still consumer confusion over what can be recycled at home.

This year’s survey, organised by WRAP under the Recycle Now brand, gathered evidence from 5,452 online interviews, the largest sample size since the reports began in 2004.

The most recent tracker also introduced a new question to assess the prevalence and strength of social norms around recycling, indicating that social norms are strongly associated with positive recycling behaviour and those who perceive a positive social norm dispose of more items correctly.

According to the tracker recyclable items that are most frequently placed in general waste instead of kerbside recycling – known as ‘missed capture’ – are aluminium foil, aerosol cans and plastic detergent and cleaning product bottles. On average, households could recycle 1.6 more items at the kerbside.

Call for consistency

In February 2019, the government launched a series of consultations on the policies put forward in its Resources and Waste Strategy, including on its proposals for consistency in household recycling collections.

Following the results of the consultation on consistency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced it will be seeking to amend legislation to require all councils in England to collect ‘at least’ the following materials from 2023:

  • Glass bottles and containers – including drinks bottles, condiment bottles, jars;
  • Paper and card – including newspaper, cardboard packaging, writing paper;
  • Plastic bottles – including clear drinks containers, HDPE (milk containers), detergent, shampoo and cleaning products;
  • Plastic pots tubs and trays; and
  • Steel and aluminium tins and cans.

As part of the consistency consultation, Defra also proposed mandatory separate food waste collections for all households and free garden waste collections.

This year’s Recycle Now survey revealed that there has been an increase in food waste recycling, with 25 per cent of UK households saying they have recycled more food waste in the past year. The results comprised of nine per cent who are new to recycling food waste and 15 per cent who are recycling more/more consistently.

By contrast, three per cent of UK households are recycling less and four per cent say they have stopped using the service altogether. Nearly two in five (38 per cent) said they do not have a food waste recycling collection.

Similarly to confusion over which packaging items can go in kerbside recycling, a number of recyclable food waste items end up in general waste. 64 per cent of respondents cited putting one or more recyclable food waste items in the general waste – most commonly tea bags and coffee grounds, eggshells, bones, unopened food still in packaging, and leftover meal scrapings.

The design of kerbside collection services also has an impact on food waste recycling, with households are more likely to say they are recycling more food waste in areas with a restricted residual waste collection. The survey results also found that separate food waste collections perform better, on average, than mixed collections of food and garden waste, both in terms of stronger social norms and better overall sentiment towards the service.

Contamination issues

As well as misplaced recyclables, contamination is an issue within kerbside recycling – when non-targeted or non-recyclable items are put in collections with recyclables, the recycling process is made more difficult and often leads to the whole batch being thrown in landfill.

This year’s tracker results show that 45 per cent of UK households put one or more items in the kerbside collection that WRAP considers to be ‘serious contaminants,’ including plastic bags and wrapping, toothpaste tubes, and drinking glasses and Pyrex. The inclusion of cookware such as pots, pans and cutlery, plastic toys, small electrical items and textiles in kerbside recycling has also significantly increased, adding to the contamination issue.

Information on where these kinds of items can be successfully recycled can be found on the Recycle Now website, along with a guide on recycling symbols.

When the results for missed capture and contamination are combined, the survey shows that UK households dispose of 3.5 items 'incorrectly' on average, relative to what their local collection accepts, again highlighting the importance of local authority consistency across the country.

Commenting on the release of the survey, Peter Maddox, WRAP Director, said: “We should never shy away from constantly banging the drum for household recycling. It is hugely important to the health of the planet because small actions by a large number of people do make a difference. What you do influences your friends, family and neighbourhoods. We all take cues from others so the more of us that take recycling into our own hands – the more will join us.”

You can find out more information about Recycle Week on the Recycle Now website, while the Recycling Tracker is available on the WRAP website.

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